Qualified-worker shortages become a concern

As baby boomers retire, county could see a dearth of skilled workers


Tom Nast, standing in front of a complex labyrinth of wires in a Bellingham Technical College lab, has his tuition and fees paid for by scholarshipsand grants. A growing demand for qualified workers in several industries has led to an increase in the number of scholarships available for students pursuing those fields.

Tom Nast went to a four-year college and received his bachelor’s degree in recreation and parks management. He wanted to work outdoors, not to be tied to a desk. But it took him several years to find a job with the forest service, and even when he did, the pay was low and he couldn’t save money from his paychecks.

Nast returned to school, but when he graduates this time he will almost certainly have a job waiting for him. Nast didn’t return to school for a master’s degree — he enrolled in Bellingham Technical College’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (H-VAC) program.

“Everyone says there’s a demand for skilled workers in the H-VAC industry,” Nast said. “You could throw a dart at a map and find a good job there within a month. That may be an exaggeration, but that’s basically the way it works.”

The H-VAC industry is not alone in its demand for skilled workers. Nationwide, technical fields and industries like manufacturing and health care anticipate a shortage of qualified employees within the next 10 years, which is the result of an aging workforce and an increase in job qualifications.

Whatcom County will not be insulated from this potential deficiency, either. Joe Blair, human resources manager of the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter facility in Ferndale, said his facility as well as sister plants across the nation are starting to see that shortage already.

“Nationally, even outside of Alcoa, there’s a shortage of skilled workers and that can be seen locally,” Blair said.

Rick Lockhart, an economist with the state Employment Security Department, said from his perspective the skilled worker shortage isn’t alarming, but it’s starting to become a concern.

“I would say right now we are between slight and moderate concern and we are moving into moderate,” Lockhart said. “But we are always going to see shortages of skilled workers.”


Where are the skilled workers?

Jeff Callender, a spokesman for ConocoPhillips, said the Ferndale refinery isn’t currently facing shortages, but approximately 50 percent of its workforce will start retiring over the next 10 years.

Callender said this may have more to do with its normal hiring cycle than anything else, however.

“[The percentage of retirees] may be a little larger than usual, but we tend to go through similar cycles every 30 years,” Callender said. “But I’m guessing that the demographics of the baby-boom generation make it a little larger than usual.”

Callender is probably correct. In addition to normal hiring cycles and the normal growth of the economy causing an increase in the number of overall jobs, Lockhart said it appears worker shortages are the result of two occurrences. Baby boomers are beginning to retire, leaving in their wake vacancies for jobs some of them have held since graduating from high school. The other main cause is a drastic increase in the number of jobs that require special certifications. Jobs that currently require certifications may have required no certifications, or very few, when the boomers entered the workforce, he said.

“They don’t just stand there, pull a lever and pop out a part,” Lockhart said. “It’s a completely different world. We didn’t have Microsoft at that point in time. Our timber processing used to be a lot different. Our manufacturing industry used to be a lot different.”

Thomas Eckert, president of Bellingham Technical College, said approximately 50 percent of all new jobs will require a college degree. He also agreed with Lockhart’s analysis the number of requirements and certifications necessary for employees has greatly increased compared to those required when baby boomers were entering the job market.

“They went to work earlier and younger,” Eckert said. “A technical degree may not have been required.”

Lockhart said the vacancies can also be attributed to a growing economy that is causing an increase in the number of job openings. But he said some openings will be offset by technical advancements that replace workers.

One industry unlikely to replace workers with technology is healthcare, Lockhart said, and that industry has one of the highest percentages of older workers in Whatcom County.

Approximately 45 percent of health care workers in Whatcom County are 45 years and older, according to Employment Security Department documents. Employees in this age group are anywhere from 20 to zero years from retirement age.

“Health care is going to get squeezed because they have an aging workforce that’s retiring,” Lockhart said.

Nicci Noteboom, a St. Joseph Hospital spokeswoman, said the hospital has slightly fewer vacancies compared to health-care facilities throughout the country because Canadian nurses fill some vacancies. However, she said the hospital still faces shortages.

“We are always looking for nurses and we know nationally, they’re a tough one to fill,” Noteboom said.

The number of manufacturing workers approaching retirement in the county isn’t much lower than in health care: 41 percent of manufacturers in the area are 45 years or older, and about one-third of construction workers are in that same age group.


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Demand for qualified workers

While a high number of retiring workers is a challenge to these industries, a lack of certified replacements increases the concern. Jobs with the greatest percentage of vacancies have certification requirements, Lockhart said. Positions that require certification also have the highest number of continuous vacancies — positions always seeking employees.

Even though the technical college has grown to 3,300 students and is seeing its highest winter enrollment ever, Eckert said it would take at least an additional 1,000 students to fill all the coming qualified-worker openings in Whatcom County.

“We think another thousand students still wouldn’t be enough,” Eckert said. “What I hear over and over again is ‘I need more welders; I need more builders.’”


Eckert said the demand for skilled workers is growing with the shortages., which ends up benefiting technical school graduates. Approximately 86 percent of Bellingham Technical College graduates find jobs right out of school, he said, and the remaining 14 percent didn’t necessarily attempt to get jobs in their fields immediately.

But Eckert is correct — there aren’t enough graduates to fill vacancies. Cassie Sauer, a spokewoman for the Washington State Hospital Association, said the demand for nurses is a constant and is growing daily because the large baby-boomer generation is getting to an age where they require more health care.

“Nurses tend to be older than the average worker, and when they retire the baby boomers will retire,” Sauer said. “The demand for healthcare workers is high. It’s increasing and it’s expected to increase more over the next 15 years.”


Offsetting potential deficiencies

Shortages are not inevitable, however. Eckert said industry, government and education are working together to attract more people to certification programs.

“There’s a great opportunity for us all to work together to fill this gap,” Eckert said.

Eckert said some strategies for offsetting shortages include helping more people get their GEDs and helping more people in the country gain their English-speaking skills.

He also said the college is beginning to offer more online and online hybrid classes and more evening classes.

“We think there are a lot of people in the county who work full time, who would like to attend [Bellingham Technical College] but don’t have time.”

In addition to the college’s efforts to make it easier for potential students to find time to attend school, numerous scholarships and grants available for students make paying for school more manageable

Anne Bowen, public information officer at Bellingham Technical College, said an estimated 60 percent of full-time students enrolled in programs at the college receive grant or scholarship money for tuition and fees — that is money they don’t have to pay back — and 80 percent of those students receive funds equal to or exceeding tuition and fees.

In addition to regular state and federal funding sources, a small portion of that amount comes from industry and private donors, Bowen said. Grants donated to the college by industry mostly go toward scholarships and equipment.

“Our industry partners have always stepped up,” Bowen said. “We get an increasing amount of funding from industry as our foundation continues to grow.”

The Alcoa Foundation recently gave a grant of $90,000 to Bellingham Technical College, and the Ferndale plant is reinstating its apprentice program, which provides 15 people with jobs in maintenance while paying for the education required of them to get certified for other positions at the plant, Blair said.

“We see a need for technical and skilled labor in the future,” Blair said. “We are trying to be proactive so there isn’t a shortage down the road.”

St. Joseph Hospital offers a similar opportunity. Noteboom said nine Whatcom County residents were awarded Levin Scholarships to pursue their health-care educations.

ConocoPhillips also recently awarded a grant to the technical college. The grant of $50,000 is intended to fund scholarships and help with construction costs for a pilot manufacturing plant for the college’s process-technology program.

“It’s an investment in our future workforce,” Callender said. “I think it’s smart business for us to invest in our local technical-training programs.”

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